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Jess Phillips’s exit is a lesson in the limits of “straight-talking” politics

The Labour backbencher crumbled upon contact with the realities of a leadership contest. 

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Jess Phillips has pulled out of the Labour leadership race, issuing a statement today saying that she is not the right person to “unite all parts of our movement” at this time. 

Anyone who followed events over the weekend will have anticipated this outcome. Phillips struggled badly at the first hustings for party members on Saturday, to the extent that she wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in which she openly admitted: “the hustings was awful. I was awful”, adding for good measure: “The likelihood that anyone but Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey is going to win is, well, pretty low.” 

After that, the writing was pretty much on the wall. “I said at the beginning of this process that I would tell the truth,” Phillips wrote in that Guardian article. “I said that I was the bold choice and only bold could beat Boris Johnson, and I meant it. And then I did something I didn’t think I would do, and I stopped being bold. I didn’t lie, but I certainly stopped being real. I really believe that authentic, big-hearted, funny, kind and different politics is the only way to beat Johnson.” 

Phillips’ bid for the leadership, as well as being an attempt by Labour’s Corbynsceptic wing to regain control of the party, was an education in whether this “authentic, big-hearted, funny, kind and different politics” actually works. The tacit message of Phillips' campaign was that she was the Labour Party’s answer to Boris Johnson: through the sheer force of her straight-talking, warm personality, she would be the best person to hold the Prime Minister to account and achieve cut-through with the public. The campaign leant heavily on her honesty, her willingness to have difficult conversations with voters, her perceived media-friendliness and her “common-sense” approach, which would reputedly lead traditional Tories to fall in love with her. 

The Labour leadership contet was a stress-test of this approach, and ultimately it crumbled upon contact. Much of Phillips’ pitch reflected what members of the public mght think when they’re watching politicians on TV: why aren’t they more honest, warmer, nicer? Why don’t they just give a common sense answer, reason with people, or say they haven’t made their mind up? It’s rather like watching Wimbledon and feeling frustrated when Andy Murray misses a shot. It’s so obvious what he needs to do to be better. But it’s much harder to achieve this when you’re the one on the court. 

With respect to Phillips for enduring what must be a fairly thankless process, this leadership contest has seen her face the reality of frontline politics, and displayed the limits of a simple “honest, common sense” approach. As Phillips herself reflected in the Guardian: “I was awful because I was trying to hit a million different lines and messages in 40 seconds. Some were my lines, some were other people’s, and it fell flat.” Ultimately, someone auditioning to be a potential prime minister needs to be able to absorb their brief and deliver key messages in a hostile format, while retaining their innate likeability. 

Phillips has a very particular and well-honed skillset as a prominent Corbynsceptic backbencher: she has a track record of expressing her criticisms of Corbyn’s leadership in a clear, relatable way, and has won the adoration of parts of the media. That skillset, however, doesn’t constitute the full gamut of political communication, nor the full skillset for leading a political party. 

Suddenly, Phillips found herself with advisers, focus group-tested messaging, and sets of lines to target at particular groups of voters. Ultimately, she found that it wasn’t enough to just be nice, commonsensical, straight-talking and honest. It must have swiftly dawned on her that all of the other candidates were trying to hit those buttons too  all politicians do. They’re just also pedaling furiously under the surface to stay on top of the detail of the whole scope of domestic and foreign affairs, and to deliver lines in the manner pre-agreed with their advisers. 

It’s, ultimately, a lesson in the demands we make of our politicians. Those supportive of Phillips’ bid in the parliamentary party lament that it seems mainly to be lawyers who are able to fit the bill. They still believe that Phillips had the raw talent to cut through and connect with voters, a skill they emphasise will be vital in the coming years of opposition. Starmer, they worry, might lack that skill should he indeed win the contest. 

Others may privately be examining the folly of a campaign so dependent on personality rather than a detailed policy pitch. It has been said before of the right/moderate wing of the Labour Party that it has struggled to develop new ideas throughout the Corbyn era. Phillips’ exit may well prompt a renewed focus on the policy proposals needed to counter those of Corbyn and his allies. In the meantime, the hopes of the Labour right have been dashed for another leadership election.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

The GMB’s endorsement concludes a brilliant day for Lisa Nandy

The Wigan MP is inches from the final Labour leadership ballot and now has a distinctive space in the campaign.

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Lisa Nandy has taken a dramatic step closer to the final Labour leadership ballot after winning the support of the GMB. The GMB’s size (it is the UK’s third-largest trade union) and the fact that Nandy has already achieved the backing of the National Union of Mineworkers, means that the support of any other trade union or affiliated socialist society, however large or small, will put her on the ballot.

The final step is not without difficulties, however. Most of the socialist societies are tightly controlled by either the party’s left or right. Those on the left will likely back Rebecca Long-Bailey, while those on the right are highly likely to fall in behind Keir Starmer, the frontrunner. However, Nandy only needs one, so while it isn’t impossible that she will fall short, it isn’t all that likely either.

The GMB’s nomination caps off a great day for the Wigan MP. Jess Phillips’s exit from the contest means that she is now in third place and, equally importantly, means that she is the only candidate running on an explicit “change or die” message. Phillips’s large media profile was also a big threat to Nandy’s hope of introducing herself to members, a majority of whom know little about her. It also means, to be frank, that in a campaign that threatens to become a rather dull procession for Starmer, there is only one candidate who people are going to talk about in any detail beyond their chances of winning. That doesn't, in itself, mean Nandy can break out from her distant third place – but it does give her a pretty good shot at doing so.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

How Emily Thornberry could still make the Labour leadership ballot

The shadow foreign secretary’s campaign received a major boost yesterday, when she achieved her first two constituency party nominations.

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Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner are the first to qualify for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership ballots, thanks to the support of the retail union Usdaw, which has added to the growing pile of endorsements amassed by the two frontrunners thus far.

But who else will join them? In the leadership race, only Rebecca Long-Bailey has a certain path – owing to the backing of Unite and various other smaller pro-Corbyn trades unions – while Lisa Nandy has the best chance of the second-tier candidates. With a large number of GMB-aligned MPs supporting her, adding to the fact that her thesis on Labour's problem is closest to that of GMB general secretary Tim Roache, the smart money has long been that Nandy will also pick up the GMB's support. That union is due to reach a formal decision today, which could leave Nandy just one affiliated body, of any size or type, away from the ballot.

And in the deputy race, only Richard Burgon has a reliable route as Rayner's popularity among both Corbynsceptic and soft Corbynite trade unions means that she will likely pick up the lion's share of nominations.

Everyone else – in the leadership race, Emily Thornberry and Jess Phillips; in the deputy contest, Rosena Allin-Khan, Dawn Butler and Ian Murray – is going to need to go via the constituency nomination route, which requires them to secure the support of 33 CLPs.

Of that group, Ian Murray looks to be the safest bet. There are still 70 Scottish constituency nominations up for grabs (the party in Scotland organises itself along Holyrood lines, not Westminster seats). While it is early days, that he has thus far won the majority of Scottish constituencies to have declared suggests he has a good route to the ballot there.

What about Thornberry and Phillips? The former's campaign received a big boost yesterday, when she picked up her first two CLP nominations – the first night that Starmer has not picked up more nominations than his rivals. Of the four CLPs that were up for grabs, Starmer and Long-Bailey, who are certain to make the ballot via other means, ended up with one apiece, while Thornberry picked up the rest.

I'm told that Thornberry’s win largely came down to a combination of a desire to widen the ballot and a genuine appreciation of Thornberry's talents, particularly her performances at the despatch box and her display at the hustings on Saturday. She's also well-placed because the candidates who her appeal is closest to – Starmer and Long-Bailey – are both certain to be on the ballot by the end of the week. If anyone is going to benefit from lent nominations, it's her. It's a long road from two to 33, but I wouldn't rule out Thornberry's chances of making the ballot proper just yet.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

How Lisa Nandy could make the Labour leadership ballot – or not

The Wigan MP and Emily Thornberry vied for the nomination of Chinese for Labour this evening – but Keir Starmer is still assiduously wooing the grassroots. 

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An assortment of leadership candidates and their proxies spent this evening at Chinese for Labour’s annual gala dinner at the Phoenix Palace in Marylebone this evening. Showing one’s face at this sort of do is de rigueur for Labour’s coming men and women in normal times, but the new rules under which leadership elections are conducted have made attendance more important than ever: the 21 socialist societies affiliated to the party, of which Chinese for Labour is one, have an outsized power in determining just who makes the ballot.

Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry both attended in person, with the former’s speech impressing attendees. Neither has yet won the nomination of a constituency party, which means schmoozing affiliates is a high stakes enterprise. Thornberry, though, appears snookered: she has no trade union to her name and appears unlikely to win one round, let alone the required two. 

Not so Nandy. Having already won the support of the National Union of Mineworkers, she requires just one more union and another affiliate to make the ballot. The GMB nominates tomorrow, with the Wigan MP considered the favourite. Tim Roche, the union’s general secretary, is a big fan. Sarah Owen, until last month its representative on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, nominated Nandy in her new capacity as MP for Luton North - as did several other GMB-aligned members of the PLP. 

By coincidence, Owen is also chair of Chinese for Labour. She cannot impose her will on its executive - whose members are predominantly based in London and aligned with the party’s right - but her voice will carry some sway. What might complicate the process is the presence of a third speaker at tonight’s event: Jenny Chapman, the chair of Keir Starmer’s campaign (there was no sign of Jess Phillips, Rebecca Long-Bailey, or any of their surrogates). Though the shadow Brexit secretary has already qualified for the ballot, he is still working affiliates and constituency Labour parties hard. Harder than he needs to? Perhaps, although it is arguably in his interests to keep the likes of Nandy and Thornberry off the ballot.

The same is true of Angela Rayner - who, like Starmer, qualified for the final round courtesy of Usdaw earlier and still wooed the crowd this evening. That will have made for uncomfortable viewing for the likes of Dawn Butler, also in attendance. Affiliates and local parties have thus far voted with their own hearts rather than seeking to avoid breaking those belonging to second-tier candidates. If Starmer and Rayner’s decision to keep seeking nominations they do not need continues to pay dividends, then the ballot paper before Labour members next month could end up very short indeed.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

Which CLPs are nominating who in the 2020 Labour leadership race?

The race now moves onto nominations from constituency Labour parties and affliates: who will make it to the contest proper?

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Five candidates for the Labour leadership have secured the required number of nominations from MPs. They go through to the next stage, where to reach the ballot proper they need either the support of five per cent of constituency Labour parties (33 in total) or at least three affiliated organisations comprising five per cent or above the total, two of which must be trades unions.

Who will make it to the final round of the contest?

Rebecca Long-Bailey (4)

Chatham and Aylesford

Kensington

Preston

Warley

Lisa Nandy

Affiliate nominations

National Union of Mineworkers

Jess Phillips

Keir Starmer (12)

Keir Starmer has recieved the support of more than five per cent of affliates, including at least two trades unions. He has therefore qualified for the ballot.

Burton and Uttoexeter

Bolton North East

Bosworth

Clackmannanshire and Dunblane

Glasgow Shettleston

Hartlepool

Ipswich

Leigh

Lichfield

Mid-Fife and Glenrothes

Richmond Park

Witham

Affiliate nominations

Unison

USDAW

SERA

Emily Thornberry (2)

Horsham

Newbury

Deputy leadership candidates

Rosena Allin-Khan

Newbury

Richard Burgon (2)

Kensington

Warley

Dawn Butler (2)

Chatham and Aylesford

Horsham

Ian Murray (2)

Clackmannanshire and Dunblane

Glasgow Shettleston

Angela Rayner (10)

Angela Rayner has recieved the support of more than five per cent of affliates, including at least two trades unions. She has therefore qualified for the ballot.

Bolton North East

Bosworth

Burton and Uttoexeter

Clackmannanshire and Dunblane

Hartlepool

Lichfield

Leigh

Mid-Fife and Glenrothes

Preston

Witham

Affiliate Nominations

National Union of Mineworkers

USDAW

Unison